Xi's pharaonic scheme faces geopolitical difficulties, as well. China has 17 land neighbors, many of which are privately wary of becoming more dependent on the country. This includes Russia, a situational ally that's worried about being completely eclipsed by China, and India, which sees itself as a potential peer and already a rival. Beijing hasn't figured out how to achieve the enthusiastic buy-in of these powers or even of smaller, regional actors such as Myanmar. So while an enduring legacy will be created for Xi in the form of endless miles of new railroad tracks, and seaborne commerce will increase apace, there are reasons to doubt that the OBOR initiative will live up to the hype. But even if it doesn't, one often-overlooked payoff may make it all seem worth it in the long run.

On maps, the boundaries of China are mostly those of the huge empire stitched together by the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1912. Its most restive regions lie in the far west, relatively poor territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang that are home to ethnic and religious minorities--Buddhists and Muslims--who've resisted assimilation. Here, too, there are no guarantees. But long after Xi is gone from power, whatever the ledger books say about OBOR's profitability or return on investment, if these regions can be rendered prosperous and quiescent through transportation and trade links with the rest of the world, Chinese historians may say it was all worth it.

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